Haddad’s novel satisfies in ways similar to that of a great magic trick: an act that offers the audience a blend of fact and fiction, along with a presentation that constantly demands attention. — Benjamin Woodard
In his 1924 book, A Magician Among the Spirits, the late Harry Houdini set out to demonstrate the counterfeit nature of Spiritualism: the belief that the dead can correspond with the living. Over thirty years, Houdini attended hundreds of séances in the United States and abroad, always with a skeptical-yet-open mind, hoping, as he put it, “to [ultimately] speak to my sainted Mother who awaits me with open arms to press me to her heart in welcome, just as she did when I entered this mundane sphere.”
Houdini never did reconnect with his departed mother before his own passing from peritonitis in 1926, but the text he left behind, a damning condemnation of Spiritualism’s manipulative practice, consisting of chapters devoted to mediums, collected letters, and correspondence, continues to stand as a kind of Bible for those leery of psychics and other parapsychological phenomena that perpetually linger in popular culture.
Margaret and Kate Fox, the subjects of Hubert Haddad’s fascinating new novel, Rochester Knockings, appear prominently in Houdini’s exposé and are often cited as the architects of modern Spiritualism. As Haddad explains via robust prose, in 1848, the sisters first experienced spiritual “rappings”—think cryptic knocks on the walls and floors, like mystical Morse code—at their family’s farm in the hamlet of Hydesville, New York. It didn’t take long before word got out about the sisters’ unusual ghostly connections, and the duo soon exhibited their gifts to paying audiences, traveling from Hydesville to Rochester, under the care of their entrepreneurial older sister, Leah, before eventually showcasing to a who’s who of New York City aristocrats. Theirs is a captivating, strange narrative, and Haddad’s fictional retelling, shaping itself as a classic dramatic tragedy, with a stratospheric rise, tragic flaw, and equally crushing plummet for its heroines, satisfies in ways similar to that of a great magic trick: an act that offers the audience a blend of fact and fiction, along with a presentation that constantly demands attention, as sections float from close third-person narration, shadowing the sisters or local residents, to epistolary scenes via Margaret’s diary.
Haddad walks a literary tightrope throughout Rochester Knockings, splitting time between the Fox sisters and their unique personalities, and it is here that small winks fill the reader in on the legitimacy of the fledgling mediums’ talents. While Kate, the youngest, appears genuine in her belief that she can speak to the dead, Margaret wavers at times when writing in her diary. For example, after Leah establishes the “Fox & Fish Spiritualist Institute” and books the girls in a local theater (“the biggest room in Rochester”) to drum up business, Margaret writes about the nerves that come along with forced public performance:
“I have the feeling I’m stepping on a bridge that’s collapsing, or steering an enormous boat into a black abyss where everything is creaking and streaming with water. And in those conditions, I still have to maintain the look of being tranquilly seated in a salon, awaiting the deluge! So, when nothing comes, it’s true, I crack my toes. What charitable person would expect someone dying not to cheat with death?”
These confessions of fraud continue in Margaret’s missives, until, so deeply rooted within the business of misleading believers, she one day burns her diary to protect her family’s livelihood. It isn’t until late in her life, and in the novel, that a down on her luck Margaret—alcoholic, widowed, dirt poor—finally admits her secrets in an attempt to embarrass Leah, who, having discarded her younger sisters, started her own profitable Spiritualist society. Margaret concedes to a crowded theater the whole thing was a sham. And yet, rather than have this reveal act as a thrilling climax, here Haddad uses the shift to cast doubt over Margaret’s admissions, as Kate says to her sister, “What? You were pretending?” Like a yin-yang, the more Margaret speaks of tricks, of the swindle, the farther Kate convinces herself that her own powers are real. This “who is telling the truth” question muddies itself further when, during their successful run, the sisters are subject to scrutiny from lawyers, doctors, and scientists, who take it upon themselves to debunk the women’s routine. Though history does show that these minor persecutions indeed took place, and were never successful, Haddad’s inclusion of each adds to his crafting of a complex narrative that, while centered around the rise and fall of the Fox sisters, also speaks to the concept of faith and devotion in general. What happens when we believe too much? When that belief is questioned? When that belief doesn’t return our piety?
Woven throughout Rochester Knockings is the rambling account of William Pill, a fictional gambler and troublemaker who, after meeting the Fox sisters, decides to fake his way into the medium business to pay off debts. Like so many others at the time (Spiritualism boomed in the 1850s thanks to the Fox sisters), Pill, taking on the alias Mac Orpheus, finds ample employment claiming his own spiritual networks, and eventually joins the Barnum circus. Unlike in his treatment of Margaret and Kate, however, here Haddad clearly establishes the forgery of Pill’s actions:
“At poker or roulette, Lady Luck was linked as much to bluffing as the little fetishistic rituals and would almost certainly elude [Pill] once he put faith in her star; but in front of a public gaping at ghosts, every turn was good for filling his wallet.”
In binding the skillsets of a gambler to that of a medium, Haddad perhaps shows the reader his true thoughts on Spiritualism’s genuineness, and yet Pill is not the only fictional addition to the novel who challenges the core concept of faith. Early in the novel, Methodist preacher Alexander Cruik stands before a Hydesville congregation, a guest of the hamlet’s Reverend Gascoigne, and uses “intuition more than reason” to speak to the room of churchgoers. As Haddad writes, he “let himself go off in a loud voice about numerous parables of his own creation, which his listeners imagined were taken from the Bible and the wisest took accurately as apocryphal.” Again, in this passage we see the author speaking to the slippery connection between faith and deception, only now he layers in the seemingly legitimate practice of organized religion. Add to this Cruik’s eventual alliance with the Fox sisters, as well as Reverend Gascoigne’s dabbling with spiritual readings from Pill’s Mac Orpheus, and Rochester Knockings becomes far more than simply a novel about Spiritualism: it’s a story that thoughtfully questions the potency of all belief systems.
Frequently, Haddad ends his chapters with a stanza of poetry. It’s an interesting choice, one that lends a fairy tale quality to the novel and allows the author to inject subtle revelations. Perhaps the most effective use of this technique comes after Kate spends an evening with Ralph Waldo Emerson. The next day, still starstruck, she recites a section of his poem, “Brahma”:
Far or forgot to me is near;
………..Shadows and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
………..And one to me are shame and fame.
Emerson’s transcendentalism is on display in the quatrain, and the whole of “Brahma” addresses the connection of all beings to a universal spirit. Still, within this stanza, one can also see the themes of Haddad’s novel: religion, faith, deception, profit. The duality of these four lines echo the complementary lives of Margaret and Kate Fox, and they mirror the structure of Rochester Knockings as a dramatic tragedy in commenting on nature’s extremes. It’s small kernels like this stanza that string the reader along—in a story about the art of convincing, would one expect anything less?—and elevate Haddad’s novel to extraordinary heights. In expanding on Harry Houdini’s discoveries, Haddad has penned a narrative that not only continues to condemn the world of parapsychology, but further questions all organized belief systems. That an author is able to achieve this while also writing a fun, engaging, and entertaining story is a rare accomplishment.
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Revolver, Maudlin House, and Cheap Pop. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his nonfiction has been featured in, or is forthcoming from The Kenyon Review Online, Alternating Current, Georgia Review, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.